The Soviets in Afghanistan: What have we learned?



The Legacy of Ahmadshah Massoud & the MujahideenCAPTION: Two Soviet T-55 Main Battle Tanks (MBT) sit rusting in a field near Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan. After decades of war and civil unrest, the Afghan landscape is painted with pieces of old military hardware and unexploded ordnance.

We are of Islam – subjugation is futile
The Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Baluch & Turkmen

The disparate and frequently warring peoples of Afghanistan were first incorporated into a nation-state, albeit a fragile one, in 1747 by Abroad Shah. His descendants, or those of his collateral lineages, ruled the nation with only brief interruptions until 1978. In 1973 the monarchy was abolished and a republic established by Mohammad Daoud Khan, who as a cousin and brother-in-law of the deposed king was a senior member of the royal family. The peoples of the region had always resisted government control of any kind, and they had contested with particular vigor invasions by non-Muslim aliens. In the nineteenth century the British Indian government sought on two occasions to establish a government in Kabul that would be amenable to British guidance, but in neither instance was it successful (The First Anglo-Afghan War & The Second Anglo-Afghan War).

Because of their political victories in the aftermaths of these wars and of a brief border war that they provoked with the British in 1919, the Afghans have evinced pride that theirs is one of the few Muslim states never to be subjugated by a non-Islamic power.

Using a historical narrative, we will trace the major events of the Soviet – Afghan War of 1979. Our intent is to illustrate how campaigning in this rugged and merciless region led to the humiliating defeat of yet another world super power.

World Super Power vs. Tribal Resistance Fighters
Who really had the tactical advantage?

The invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 represented the Soviet Union’s first incursion into the non-Communist bloc since 1945. It brought with it international condemnation and an extensive boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. It also caused the Soviet Army to become embroiled in a bitter and uncompromising guerrilla war in an alien environment against some of the finest irregulars in the world.


Mujahideen forces travel in a captured Soviet jeep near Aliabad. Maintenance was non-existent; when vehicles became inoperable they were abandoned.


An Afghan resistance fighter operates a captured AGS-17 automatic grenade launcher capable of firing 30 mm projectiles more than 1,000 meters.

The Soviet decision to invade was not taken lightly nor with territorial gain in mind. Afghanistan was becoming increasingly vocal in its support of Islamic fundamentalism and was creating considerable instability in the three neighboring border states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Moscow felt it had to act if only to preserve its own integrity.

Afghanistan had been the recipient of considerable Soviet aid since 1953 when Mohammed Daoud Khan, a cousin of the king, had seized power. In 1978 two left­ wing parties, the Khalq and Parham, named after their rival newspapers, had wrested control and moved the country even closer to the Soviet sphere of influence. The new president, Mohammed Takriti, had introduced a series of sweeping reforms, including the emancipation of women, which had upset the majority of the fiercely traditional and religious population. When Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin accelerated the program in 1979, discontent turned to open rebellion, which prompted a reply from the government by way of wide-scale repression. Ignoring warnings from the Soviets to temper the speed of his reforms, Amin had engineered Takriti’s death in September 1979 and assumed total control. It was then that Moscow decided to intervene and began to formulate a top-secret plan for invasion.

Uniquely, the majority of the Soviet troops engaged in the overthrow of the Afghan government were in situ prior to the event. They had been invited into the country by the unsuspecting Amin in response to an offer from Moscow to assist him in the maintenance of Communist order. Between 8 and 10 December 1979, some 14 days before the invasion, an airborne regiment with more than 1,500 men with tanks and artillery was deployed to Bagram, a key town to the north of Kabul, to secure the Salang Highway with its critical tunnel. Between 10 and 24 December a battalion from the regiment was moved to Kabul International Airport only 3 km (1.86 miles) from the city center. Simultaneously large quantities of Afghan armored and transport vehicles were recalled to workshops by Soviet ‘advisors’, ostensibly for servicing before a big push against the rebels. President Amin was persuaded by the Soviet military command to retreat to his palace complex at Darulaman, some 11.25 km (7 miles) southwest of Kabul, which was deemed to be more secure. Between 24 and 27 December, troops from the Soviet 105th Guards Airborne Division, supported by Spetsnaz, landed at the secured Kabul Airport together with the air force bases at Bagram, Shindand and Kandahar. Once the bases were secured the two regiments of the division not yet committed landed at Kabul and Bagram and began to prepare for offensive action. On the next night, the still unsuspecting Afghan government gathered en masse at the Kabul Intercontinental Hotel for an evening’s entertainment to be hosted by the Soviet Embassy. They were arrested. At approximately 7.00 p.m. the same evening, Spetsnaz teams demolished the central military communications center, captured the still functioning Ministry of the Interior, the Kabul radio station and several other key points. By dawn the next morning the city was firmly in Soviet hands.


Ahmadshah Massoud (second from left), commander of the Mujahideen forces in the Panjshir Valley talks with his guerilla fighters.


Ahmadshah Massoud  typified the Mujahideen resistance: brave & resourceful but without the capacity to strategically plan.

The crux of the attack was the assault on Darulaman where Amin remained under the protection of a loyal armored regiment supported by eight T -55 tanks. Spetsnaz forces led the attack with K.G.B. assistance, supported by three airborne battalions equipped with BMD armored personnel carriers. Amin was killed as was his family, security force and entourage. For their part, the Soviets sustained a reported 25 dead, including the K.G.B. Colonel Balashika killed in crossfire by his own troops. There were 225 wounded.

By the time that Moscow Radio broadcast a report stating that Soviet troops had moved into Afghanistan at the request of the government to assist it in the restoration of order, the leaders of the government were dead, killed by their very protectors. The path to initial Soviet victory was paved by the painstaking use of maskarovka backed up where necessary by the brutal but devastatingly effective use of local force. Spetsnaz had been in evidence in all the major key areas and had been instrumental in the elimination of Amin and his entire faction.

The takeover continued smoothly into January with little obvious employment for Spetsnaz. Four motor rifle divisions, followed shortly afterwards by two more, crossed the frontier one column moving through Herat in the west, the other coming down from Termez. Babrak Kamal, the new puppet Afghan leader, attempted to restore order by releasing large numbers of political prisoners, most of whom would later join the Mujahideen, and revoking the most unpopular areas of agricultural reform.


Mujahideen fighters were often armed with captured Soviet-made RPG-7 rocket launchers. These weapons delivered considerable damage to Soviet convoys.


Mujahideen fighters on the move in the outskirts of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Few Afghans felt comfortable with the new atheistic Marxist regime. In February 1980 a general strike in Kabul was suppressed with violence. As matters deteriorated, guerrilla activity in the mountains began to increase, forcing the invaders to stick to the main highways. The provinces of Paktia, Nangahar and Nuristan in the east, Hazarajat in the center and Herat in the west fell almost totally under the control of rival and often warring Mujahideen factions.


Osama Bin Laden not only raised millions for the war effort, but helped encourage Arab volunteers to go fight against the Soviets and the Afghan communists. The Arab volunteers included people like Ayman al-Zawahiri, a young physician who had been jailed for having been involved in the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat. Bin Laden kept a database of these volunteers. In Arabic the word for base is al-Qaeda.

By late 1981 the Soviets had become reconciled to the fact that they could no longer prosecute the war as though it were being fought in the plains of Northern Germany. Their over-reliance on roads was making them vulnerable to ambush and was doing nothing to defeat the guerrillas who remained secure, immune from attack in their mountain bases.

In response the Soviets began to introduce new, far more effective tactics. While continuing to stage large all-arms operations and sweeps in conjunction with the rapidly disintegrating Afghan Army, they introduced helicopter-borne troops to the mountains. Spetsnaz and paratroop forces who until then had been confined to defensive security operations were released to go on to the offensive. As the months progressed the number of Special Forces in Afghanistan doubled to two independent brigades, one stationed at Kandahar, the other at Shindand. Mujahideen fighters lured into the open to attack ‘conventional’ convoys were suddenly themselves set upon by surprise squads of airborne soldiers working closely with the ground forces.

In 1983 the Soviets went on the offensive, using their considerable fixed wing and helicopter air power to carry the war into the mountains. Groups of between 500 and 1,500 helicopter-borne troops were used independently or in conjunction with ground troops in major search and destroy operations against isolated towns and villages. ‘Turned’ ex-guerrillas and Khad (Afghan secret police) agents were infiltrated into the Mujahideen camps to report on their strengths and intentions. Nocturnal commando raids were mounted by specially trained Spetsnaz units against previously impregnable Mujahideen strongholds and hideouts. Guerrilla lines of communication were ambushed and villages suspected of harboring or in any way assisting the Mujahideen were razed to the ground in a scorched earth policy reminiscent of the Americans in Vietnam.

In spring 1985, divisional Spetsnaz troops began to work in close conjunction with conventional ground troops in an attempt to rid the major valleys of large­s scale enemy activity. During two sorties along the Kunar Valley and subsequently during the Paktia offensive, helicopter­ borne troops were inserted on high ground ahead of the advancing tanks and APCs in an attempt to catch the enemy in the open. Casualties on both sides were ferocious but, in Soviet military eyes, acceptable.

While the valleys were being cleared with the aid of divisional Spetsnaz forces, small independent Spetsnaz units were deployed to the borders with Pakistan and Iran to operate in a counter-infiltration role. Fighters returning to the war after a period of rest with their families were ambushed in once friendly territory close to, or even across, the border until nowhere could be deemed safe.

In July 1985 General Mikhail Mitrofanovich Zaitsev assumed command of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan and began to emphasize the role of highly mobile rapid intervention special forces. For the first time in Soviet military history, battalion and company commanders were allowed – ­even expected – to use their initiative.

While divisional Spetsnaz troops, most of whom were conscripts inducted into the Special Forces for their fitness and political reliability rather than their experience, continued to operate in close support of the ground forces, independent Spetsnaz units were given almost complete autonomy. Comprising regular soldiers, the majority of whom were in their thirties, battle-hardened and totally acclimatized to mountain warfare, the independent units quickly began to register successes.

Maskarovka, the art of military deceit in which the Soviets excel, was frequently employed to mask Spetsnaz intentions. Small groups would often dress as peasants, in one instance actually driving a flock of sheep ahead of them, to enable them to move unnoticed about the mountains. Other groups would be dropped by helicopter many kilometers from their objective and would then use vehicles to move silently by night to their ambush points. Still more would disguise themselves as Mujahideen and move openly through friendly areas desecrating holy places, stealing and raping as they went in an attempt to discredit the guerrillas in the eyes of their supporters.

Few Western reporters in Afghanistan fully appreciated the true diversity of Spetsnaz and frequently misreported their activities confusing them with airborne and commando operations. Hardly any seemed to realize their role in razvedka, the gathering of reconnaissance. Throughout the latter part of the war, Spetsnaz troops were involved in short and long-range helicopter-borne insertions, patrols and the manning of reinforced, though covert observation posts on high ground overlooking the valleys and main trade routes. In the words of Abdul Haq, the finest and most successful of the Mujahideen leaders, troops involved in razvedka were, “very good at camouflage, map reading, reconnaissance and finding food from nowhere”. They were also invariably regular Spetsnaz troops who reported not to the local regimental commander but directly to their own high level authorities in the Soviet Union.

The Largest Covert Operation in History?

On July 3rd, 1979, United States President Carter approved aid to anti-soviet forces in Afghanistan. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser stated in 1998, “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the Mujahideen began… after the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan… But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise: Indeed, it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.”

A Mujahideen irregular aims a U.S.-made Stinger missile near Gardez, Afghanistan, Dec. 1991. The State Department estimates that about 1 million shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles have been produced worldwide since the 1950s. The number believed to be in the hands of ‘non-state actors,’ such as terrorist groups, is ‘in the thousands,’ the department says.

It is through the luxury of hindsight we now know had the large-scale covert introduction of U.S. made Stinger hand-held surface-to-air missiles into the Mujahideen arsenal in 1979 not completely changed the war fighting capability of the resistance, there is the possibility that the introduction by Zaitsev of localized tactics supported by large-scale Spetsnaz intervention could have led to the prolonging of hostilities.

However, just as those who came before, the outcome was the humiliating withdrawal of all Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

2007 – The Western Alliance vs. The Taliban

Led by General Dan McNeil, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) operates in a regional command structure comprising forces from the United States, Britian, Germany, Italy, Canada, Netherlands, Turkey and France. In spite of considerable NATO force capability, it appears that the Taliban have the tenacity to outlast the appetite of the West for continuing the fight. Leaders & Defense Ministers from Netherlands, Canada, Germany, Italy and the United States are facing considerable pressure to withdraw. NATO commanders are pinning their future force structure on the departure of the British from Iraq, and the imminent draw-down of American troops there.

If the ISAF is unable to maintain enough “boots on the ground”, they will soon lose the initiative and eventually be forced to consider a complete withdrawal.

Troops from the 82nd Airborne are landed by helicopter in the mountains near Kandahar, where they provide security for Coalition Special Forces conducting operations against Taliban fighters.


In an incredible display of raw skill and guts, an American pilot fly’s a Boeing H-47 Chinook Helicopter into a tail-door down hover position. Wounded soldiers of the U.S. 10th mountain division are loaded for medical evacuation from a forward operating base (FOB).

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1 Response to The Soviets in Afghanistan: What have we learned?

  1. Massoud says:

    Mujahideen are the heart of afghanistan freedom fighters and whoever, whatever tries to start a war against them and the afghan people then surely they will fight till their death and for decades untill thier beloved country Afghanistan is in peace and freedom again with the help of the great Almighty Allah, “Alhamdulliah”.

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